Bottle Shock

by Elizabeth Cooper in Wine & Beer

No, I’m not referencing the movie. It’s a situation that occurs more often than I think most realize; and I have not seriously contemplated it until recently. I was tasting wine with a distributor prior to the holidays and he mentioned having a wine that he was very excited to try, only to open it and find it almost undrinkable – not flawed, just a lot of nothing.

After discussing the missing fruit, structure and aromatics – he mentioned having an unopened bottle with him; and not being one to pass on a challenge, I suggested we give it a try.  It was a 2008 Napa Cabernet.  Once opened the wine immediately bloomed with tart cherry and blackberry fruit with a hint of graphite and smoke – just what you would expect from Napa mountain fruit.  So of course, I though  “this guy is out of his mind!” The palate definitely followed the nose, with firm tannins and tight, bracing acidity (this wine is still a child…).  The finish was long and elegant and I could imagine how wonderful this would taste with grilled steak and wild mushroom risotto.  I noticed after tasting that my friend had a rather shocked look on his face “this is not the same wine, I know what you are thinking; but this is completely different then what I tasted.”


So why is that…

After a bit more back and forth on the quality of what we tasted, we deduced that the wine was suffering from bottle/travel shock.  This is a phenomenon that hits wine two-fold.  It can affect a wine when transferring into bottles as well as during the shipping process. Essentially, in both occasions the molecules are shaken and disheveled.  This “winelag” can be equated to the human effects of long distance travel: fatigue, dishevelment, sluggishness, etc.

After doing a bit of research, I’ve found that wine, like Champagne, is subjected to riddling: jostling, shaking and knocking around during transport. This repetitive agitation, combined with temperature changes, can actually cause molecular bonds to break down. One can imagine how the cyclic, monotonous motions of a truck, ship or airplane in transit can have that effect on a bottle of wine over long travel. Compounds within, especially those delicate aromatic ones, lose integrity and degrade. The result is a wine that is lacking and deficient.

Much like us, older wines are more susceptive to bottle shock than their younger counter parts. Accordingly, the more delicate varietals (i.e. Pinot Noir) are more greatly affected than their heartier counterparts (i.e. Cabernet Sauvignon.)

Bottle shock also can happen immediately after a wine is bottled. This is actually the origin for the term itself.  It is quite common for winemakers to prefer not to taste their wine shortly after bottling as it can show what is referred to as a “dumb” stage. “Bottling can be a very traumatizing experience for a wine. You must remember that some wines also are filtered just before being bottled, and then the wine goes from a larger tank or barrel into its tiny home in a bottle. Most bottling is done by pumping, which is not so gentle. Then the bottle sometimes goes down a conveyor belt to be corked, labeled and capsuled. I’m reminded of the sitcom Laverne and Shirley, as the bottles make their way through the process, minus the glove. The noise is very loud and, as you can imagine, jarring not only to the senses, but also to the wine.” Roberto Viernes – Honolulu master sommelier

Fear not, this is only a temporary situation.  With most wines (especially youngsters) the recovery time is quick – even a matter of days; but I would suggest 2 weeks for good measure.   With older wines, this recovery will take longer – sometimes months.  So keep in mind, if you are having wine shipped – especially for the holidays – send it sooner than later and give it time to recover!  If you are bringing a wine with some age, say 10 to 15 years and on, to an event – take great care in its handling and allow time for it to rest prior to opening.  Patience is always rewarded with wine, like so many things in life!


Elizabeth Cooper

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